In addition to all of the primary elections taking place in Pennsylvania today (President, U.S. Senate, Congress, down-ballot executive office, and state legislature), there is also a special election for a State Senate seat in the Philadelphia suburbs. Republican Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi was elected to a county judgeship last November after holding this seat for almost 15 years. He vacated SD #9 on December 31st, with the special election being held today.
Non-profit executive Marty Molloy is the Democratic candidate, while State Representative Tom Killion is running on the GOP side. Both candidates are also unopposed on their party’s primary ballot, meaning that regardless of the outcome of today’s special election, these two men will face each other for a full term for this seat in November’s general election. PA SD #9 includes parts of two counties in the suburbs southwest of Philadelphia: Delaware County, which is generally Democratic, and Chester County, which leans Republican.
The current party composition of the Pennsylvania State Senate is 30 Republicans and 19 Democrats. Republicans have controlled between 29 and 31 seats in this body consistently since 2000, except for the two-year period after President Obama’s re-election in 2012, when their majority was down to just 27.
Both candidates would benefit greatly from the advantage of incumbency that winning this special election would give them heading into November. Mr. Molloy would greatly enhance his name recognition, since this is his first run for public office, while Rep. Killion will need to offset the turnout advantage that generally favors Democrats in presidential years.
Of course, the biggest factor in today’s SD #9 special election will be the turnout for the high-profile races taking place in Pennsylvania. Donald Trump’s Presidential candidacy is obviously driving interest and enthusiasm for both parties. In addition, there are prominent Democratic primaries today to select a challenger to U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R), as well as a nominee for the open State Attorney General’s office, currently held by the embattled incumbent, Kathleen Kane (D).
Although Sen. Pileggi was elected four times, this district clearly favors Democrats in Presidential years, as seen by the chart below:
Sen. Pileggi outperformed all Republican candidates in this district by 7-12%, although in the two highest-profile races (President and U.S. Senate), both Democrats were well-known incumbents. Republican candidates for Attorney General, Auditor, and Treasurer did about 2% better in PA SD #9 as compared to the entire state. That notwithstanding, the district gave majorities to the Democrat candidate in every 2012 statewide contest except for Auditor General.
This is also the first year that odd-numbered State Senate districts in Pennsylvania will see voting after the 2010 census. Court challenges to the state’s originally-passed redistricting plan pushed the implementation date for the newly-drawn boundaries to the 2014 elections; however, Sen. Pileggi won re-election in 2012 using the old boundaries. Most of the changes were in Chester County, which is the more-Republican leaning part of SD #9, but as the chart below shows, the net effect is negligible.
Rep. Killion’s was unopposed for re-election to his Delaware County State House district in 2014. Since he is a Republican, this is significant considering that the county generally favors Democratic candidates 60%-40% in Presidential years. However, as the chart below demonstrates, Rep. Killion represents the most Republican-friendly parts of Delaware County. His district favored Republican statewide candidates by as much as 12% compared to the county as a whole:
The party preference of voters in this district favor the Democratic candidate, Mr. Molloy, but Rep. Killion has a significant advantage in campaign experience, name recognition, and deep ties within the local community. And the unique nature of this year’s Presidential race makes forecasting primary turnout nearly impossible. Most of my experience in analyzing and forecasting special elections comes from examining races which occur by themselves, rather than those which take place concurrently with regular primary or general elections. But I’m inclined to believe that high, Donald Trump-inspired Republican turnout, combined with Rep. Killion’s experience, will give him a narrow victory today.